Off the Mat, Into the Fray: Yoga at the RNC & DNC. ~ Marianne Elliott

Via elephant journal
on Sep 11, 2012
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Why the OTM/Huffington Oasis Was an Important Step Towards Real Change.

As a yogi who is passionate about justice and who sees that central government plays a key role in either obstructing or enabling greater social and economic justice, I was encouraged by Off the Mat, Into the World’s choice to engage with the political process this year in the form of YogaVotes.

Seane Corn, Off the Mat co-founder, has said that awareness, connection and participation are core elements of yoga and that they can also be core elements of how we organize ourselves as democratic societies. This, as I understand it, is the intention of YogaVotes:

•  Firstly, to encourage Americans who practice yoga to vote and to consider how the values and principles of yoga might inform their vote.

•  Secondly, to bring the practices and values of yoga to the political process.

Which is how OTM ended up teaching yoga at the Republican National Convention, and on the receiving end of some strong—and snarky—criticism.

After years working in the aid and humanitarian sector, I’m familiar with snark. It’s almost the modus operandi of the aid sector. But I’m not a fan. Snark is criticism plus sarcasm. It’s dismissive and divisive and neither of those promotes the core values of yoga.

One yoga blogger said of OTM’s role at the conventions:

“The only thing more embarrassing than Clint Eastwood’s rambling and incoherent speech was the Huffington Oasis, an Off The Mat, Into The World collaboration with the Huffington Post.”

Another critic wrote:

“In closing, it is the belief of The Babarazzi that Sean (sic) Corn’s publicity stunt is one of the greatest and most awesomest (sic) fuck-ups mainstream yoga has ever accomplished … and could only come from the minds of silly heads bent on creating more silly head money.”

There are important questions to ask about the role of yoga in the modern Western “democratic” system. Questions about whether the system is so profoundly flawed, that we might choose not to engage with it at all and instead begin a movement for a new—engaged, unified and participatory—system of communal decision-making.

We can have that debate without attacking each other. We can and should approach these issues with intellectual rigor and careful critique. And we can ask those questions with humility, generosity and kindness. The same blogger said:

“If yoga wants to play in politricks, then it has entered the political discourse and made itself available to being dissected in the rich language and discourse of political theory and op/ed.”

I agree. So I’m going to put aside for a moment the snark and try to address the real concerns. Because there are some and they deserve serious consideration.

One of the key criticisms in that post was that there was no need to provide mindfulness practices in this situation, since everyone at the conventions is already so privileged that they have access, by the very nature of their social and economic status.

It’s a question worth asking. But it relies on a relatively narrow definition of “access” and makes certain assumptions about who might be at a political convention. Is everyone at the convention rich? Are they all from privileged backgrounds, where taking time out to care for their body, mind and spirit would be culturally encouraged or even accepted? What barriers, other than poverty and political disenfranchisement, could stand in the way of someone taking up a personal mindfulness practice?

Photo on the left: Kerri Kelly of Off the Mat, Into the World, teaches yoga at the Huffington Post Oasis at the DNC.








There is also an argument to be made that limited resources need to be prioritized for the least well-resourced communities. However, one interesting feature of the set-up of the Oasis is that Huffington Post donated $40k to OTM for providing yoga. OTM was able to provide the teaching through the contribution of volunteers (and given that OTM is a volunteer organization, I see nothing problematic about that). So the money could be re-directed into other programs, such as the Empowered Youth Initiative, that do the sorts of things many critics of the Oasis say OTM should be doing instead.

As Babarazzi said:

“When a yoga practitioner ventures into the territory of homelessness, poverty, and prisons in order to teach the traditional practice of asana and meditation, this practitioner is making accessible something that was previously not.”

The irony is that YogaVotes evolved out of many years of OTM’s work with communities who experience the sharp end of policies on poverty, justice, health and education. What OTM realized was that for real change, they needed to engage with the power structures that create and sustain the situations where we found ourselves continually playing a “service” role.

I agree with one commentor on the Babarazzi post who said:

“Political action aligned with yogic values, in my mind, means addressing structures that enable economic inequality, environmental devastation, racial and gender inequality, etc, to grow and persist. We should not confuse yoga service efforts with political action. They are very different beasts and it is dangerous to lead yoga practitioners to think that political action is sharing yoga class with kids from the hood, while they have no awareness of the structures that create the hood in the first place or how their daily lives contribute to that system.”

This is a very important point and the kind of issue that I would love to see us debate—with respect, compassion and humility—within the yoga community. Indeed, this is being debated and discussed in the OTM community.

This is why the Empowered Youth Initiative includes “a process of mutual inquiry with the young people they wish to serve”, and why it “focuses on exploring the dynamics that surround disenfranchised urban and suburban youth in the United States.” As OTM says:

“The more we as conscious activists can understand this larger socio-economic and political context, the more effective we can be in serving this community.”

Given my own experience working in human rights and social activism, I know it takes a lot of different change levers, activated at a lot of different levels, for unjust power structures and systems to be altered.

We can ask critical questions about the power implications of our choices of strategy. We can stay in open, humble conversation about what we are and are not achieving. We can learn from each other and from our own mistakes. And, as yogis, I hope we can do this in a spirit of kindness. Because if there is one comment in all of this, that I disagree with most, it is this—from a commentor on Babarazzi’s post:

“We can’t be so naive as to think simple kindness has any effect in this situation.”

I’ve seen the effect of simple kindness in some of the most violent and hateful settings imaginable. It is not a cure-all and it is not an excuse for not doing careful analysis of the power dynamics into which we may be wading. But it always has an effect. Always. And often, it has a much greater effect that we credit.

Marianne Elliott is a storyteller, human rights activist and yoga teacher, as well as the creator of 30 Days of Yoga. She is also the regional leader for Off the Mat, Into the World Australia and New Zealand. A recovering lawyer and do-gooder, Marianne wrote Zen Under Fire, a story about what it means to do good in the midst of war. Her writing is fueled by tea, dark chocolate and Yo-Yo Ma.



Editor: Malin Bergman

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14 Responses to “Off the Mat, Into the Fray: Yoga at the RNC & DNC. ~ Marianne Elliott”

  1. susan says:

    What confuses me is whether their efforts are to just engage people and get us thinking and active, or are there policy positions OTM favors (and is going to push for). Our politics are so polarized so both could use clarification, as the former is bizarre and the latter is expected but also unexplained.

  2. carolhortonbooks says:

    Thanks for this post. I followed the OTM at the RNC/DNC online discussion as closely as I could as I'm very interested in the issues raised. My conclusion was that a number of related things bothered me very much about what happened. It's really too much to explain in a comment, but I'll try to do it succinctly anyway.

    1. The way the OTM's involvement at the DNC/RNC was communicated to the public made it sound like yoga was being offered as a spa amenity catering to convention delegates and the press. One HuffPost piece I read praised the Oasis as a place where you could relax, eat snacks, practice yoga, have your makeup redone, smell nice smells, etc. Given the serious issues at stake in this election, it all came off as embarrassingly lite. See also this video posted on a prominent yoga blog:….

    2. When yoga comes off as a spa amenity, it's highly discordant to also have it described as "service," "activism," and "making a difference." Again, particularly given the importance of this election, I found this distressing.

    3. Political engagement requires political education and taking a stand. Encouraging people simply to "vote" – while not a bad thing in and itself – is insufficient to accomplish either. Offering free yoga, makeup touch-ups, healthy snacks, etc. doesn't do either at all.

    4. Yet, the yoga community desperately needs political education. There are many people with unrealistic (to say the least) ideas, such as one of my yoga teachers who explained to me that she was taking action on the BP oil spill crisis by "breathing into the oil spill" while she practiced to stop the damage. There is a lot of this kind of magical thinking out there.

    Hopefully, offering substantive information about real issues would model a better way. Yet I don't see this happening. You say that OTM is debating issues of power, inequality, etc.. And I believe you. But none of that came across in this recent episode.

    5. If you say that you are "making a difference" with something like the Oasis, yet there is no political education, no political discussion, no policy positions, nothing of concrete political substance at all being presented publicly, you invite a skeptical if not cynical reaction from all but your already on-board students and fans. The normal person will assume that one spends time at conventions full of powerful people in order to promote your brand, and network with people with money, fame, and power. While there's nothing necessarily wrong with this, painting it as "service" sounds naive at best and duplicitous to many.

    Personally, I really respect OTM and think that the teachers leading it are excellent. I believe that they are doing a lot of great work and cultivating some incredible young leaders in the yoga community. I've taken classes with Seane, Hala, and Suzanne, and they've all been powerful and valuable. So, while my criticisms may sound harsh, they are really coming from a place of disappointment rather than animosity. I think OTM is great but came out looking pretty bad with this Oasis episode.

  3. Benny says:

    What exactly are "yogic values?" That phrase makes my skin crawl as its clear someone is using yoga to advance their own personal agenda/values under the guise of "yogic values." I know what Christian values are as I can find parables attesting to them in the bible and can seek out lessons on Sunday's in a Church if I choose to seek them out. I know what American values are as we have founding documents, a culture, common law, and a common history in which our values have been derived and expressed.

    But what are "yogic values" exactly? How were they created/developed, where are they written? I don't believe they exist, the idea that there is a single set of "values" that practitioners of yoga follow is deeply flawed. I have personal values and my yoga practice helps me live up to them but they do not inform my politics or my view of the proper role of government in our society. The idea that any organization would claim to be taking "yogic values" in to any sphere of life should be viewed as a fraud as no organization has a claim on the values of yoga.

  4. Emily Perry says:

    Thank you Marianne! Great piece. While I didn’t follow the OTM work at the conventions closely, I saw them as seed planting: planting the seeds of embodiment and mindfulness so that those seeds may then lead to more real awareness and care in the way politics, and politicians, operate in this country. Namaste!

  5. Marianne says:

    Hi Benny,

    When I refer to 'yogic values' I'm talking about the values and principles outlined in the yamas and niyamas – the first and second limbs of yoga as set out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. For example 'ahimsa' is the value or precept of non-violence, of not harming other people or sentient beings. Satya is the value or precept of truthfulness.

    Although different people will interpret and apply them differently, as is the case in Christianity, these values and ethical precepts are very widely accepted as being core to the practice of yoga.



  6. Marianne says:

    Thanks Emily, yes – as I understand it Off the Mat also see this years events and programs as a beginning, and I expect they'll be interesting in learning, adjusting and further developing the YogaVotes campaign in years to come.

  7. Marianne says:

    Thanks Bob, glad you found it interesting.

  8. Thaddeus1 says:

    Just out of curiosity…if one were to see ahimsa as a "voteable" platform, who in God's name could a yogi actually vote for?

  9. Marianne says:

    Thanks so much for this incredibly thoughtful comment Carol.

    I agree that political education is needed – in the yoga community and more generally. In a sense, I think, some of the Off the Mat leadership trainings do provide a certain degree of political education, the Yoga in Action course asks participants to read news and current affairs and to partake in a conversation about how they habitually respond to those stories (many of us prefer denial to engagement and this exercise challenges us to reconsider that). The Empowered Youth initiative also includes a consideration of the socio-political and economic context in which 'at-risk-youth' are living. But I don't think either of these are designed to be comprehensive political eduction processes, and I agree that there is plenty of scope for more effort in that area – whether or not Off the Mat is the right organisation to be doing it.

    However, I think it makes sense for OTM to start with the basics, engaging the yoga community in a discussion about being politically engaged, in itself, has proven to be a relatively controversial effort. It seems to me that it might be wise, if you are expanding your programs in a new direction, to start with a basic 'voter engagement' program and see how that goes. Perhaps more will be possible in the future?

    I would also guess there are specific limits on Off the Mat's allowed range of activities based on their 'charitable purpose' as defined in their constitution. Branching into substantive political education could even be outside the scope of that definition.

    Anyway as an active member of the Off the Mat community I'm keen to see this discussion continue so that we can all broaden our understanding of the role of politics in determining the social and economic environment in which we – as humans, as citizens and as yogis – are looking to serve. So I'm grateful for your contribution.


  10. Hala Khouri says:

    Marianne, thank you so much for our post and the conversation. And to all the folks leaving comments, I really appreciate the great questions and critical thinking. As a co-founder of Off the Mat, I am proud of all that we have done. Branching out into the political sphere is a risk that we chose to take in order to ignite a conversation just like this one. As Emily said above, we are planting seeds, listening to our community, and will grow and respond based on this dialogue and others that come about as a result.

    Carol, you ask some really important questions, and it's confusing that the media portrayal of the Oasis may not be exactly what we intended. I was not at the conventions because I chose to stay home with my little kids, so I too have been observing from the outside. I have not gotten detailed updates from the team, but when I do, I'm sure we will be sharing more of our experiences and engaging in this conversation more.

    I just wanted to chime in and lend my support to the conversation and gratitude for a dialogue like this one which feels sincere rather than wanting to poke fun or be snarky. At OTM we don't shy away from the difficult questions, and are fully committed to seeing our own blind spots and faults.

  11. Lisa says:

    "No good deed goes unpunished." However, we need to keep doing them. Blessings.

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